Thursday, July 3, 2014

Coming to Picture Book Life Again

As the school year careened ( I mean moved in an organized, controlled, but fast-paced) towards its conclusion, I realized I had not really been able to think about this blog since the Caldecotts were announced in January.

Now that we are on summer break and moving at a slightly slower pace, I have resolved to get back in gear this summer - so here goes.

One of the things I've been wrestling with since January's Caldecott announcements (see the results here) has been what is happening in the United States' children's publishing industry and awards.  I'm planning to continue working this through and hoping to report some of my thoughts in time.

In the mean time, there are some interesting books out, and some not-so interesting books out that I plan to review this summer.

Happy Reading.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Books

A few days ago I posted a list of books that were in the final group for the mock Caldecott vote on the Calling Caldecott blog on the Horn Book website. They are a fine group of books. Some of my favorites for the year are not on this list, but let's start with these. I've also included those that won the vote on the blog.

Building Our House by Jonathan Bean
This book is one of my favorites of the year (2013).  It won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Award this past September. Jonathan Bean superbly and charmingly recounts and illustrates the experiences of his early childhood living through the building of their new family home.  We read this book several times a day for months and never tired of it.  Each time I read it to library classes at my son's school the kids were riveted and would pore over the book for the rest of library time. A very satisfying experience for everyone. Not to be missed.

The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen
This is a wildly popular book among many including teachers and librarians and was debated quite a bit among the readers and voters on the Calling Caldecott Blog.  I am not a huge fan. Frankly, it is too scarey for the age it is intended for.  My son (7 1/2) barely let me finish it. But he was facinated by the illustrations and I found him studying them for weeks afterwards.  There are some inconsistencies with the illustrations also which bothered me (I guess I'm pickier with books I don't like than those I do).  Librarians and teachers reported the book helping children open up about their fears. There are many more apealing, and not so frightening, books that can help children do that, so that didn't help me much.

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle
The first time I looked at this book, it reminded me of the scene at the end of You Will Be My Friend by Peter Brown where a flamingo befriends the discouraged Lucy (bear-child) and they have a wonderful time together, including dancing.  So feeling that the idea of flamingo and child dancing wonderfully together had been copied, I set this book aside. However, I went back to it in preparation for this mock Caldecott vote and I'm so glad I did. Frankly, it is simply beautiful. Wordless for good reason, each page expresses elegantly all it needs to of the building of a friendship between Flora and the flamingo.  

Have You Seen My New Blue Socks? by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier
A very sweet book for younger children, I was not overly wowed by the illustrations and was puzzled about why it ended up in this final grouping for the mock vote.  I think Eve Bunting is a marvelous writer. She is extremely proflific and versatile. A quick search at the library or online will show many books on a variety of topics, both fun and serious, all equally well written. I was won over years ago by Flower Garden which is still one of my favorite books for younger children.

Journey by Aaron Becker
This book won the Calling Caldecott blog mock vote this past Friday (in a very close race with Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown, see below).  I remember seeing some gorgeous pages from Journey on an illustration blog (Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast) sometime earlier in the year. Some of the art is breathtaking and cannot be forgotten. Like Flora and the Flamingo, it is wordless. And honestly, it doesn't need any text at all. It is also an homage to Harold and the Purple Crayon, the art of M C Escher, Blackout by John Rocco, Hello Hello by Matthew Cordell, and probably much more that I missed.  Overall, I liked it, if no other reason than the lush beauty of some illustrations but it wasn't one of my top picks. It has passionate fans, however.

Locomotive by Brian Floca
What a book this turned out to be! It is a treasure trove of information and illustration - the history of railway in the United States told and illustrated in detail. The detail is overwhelming at times, making the book feel as if it was written more for train enthusiasts and adult readers than picture book age kids.  I know my 3rd grade teacher friend Sam would use it in her history units.
I was wowed, but wouldn't include it in my top choices.

The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
I read this book earlier in the year and don't remember it well, so will only say that the story is charming, and the illlustrations amazing. I wanted books more beautiful somehow for this vote but this book is brilliant.

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown
Where to I begin with this wonderful book? The runner up ( down only by 4, I think it was, votes) in the mock Caldecott vote, much to my disappointment. Once the choices got narrowed to 2 books for the final vote, I was thrilled to vote this book. Peter Brown's humor is so inviting and infectious.  This is a funny book, subversive - yes, but funny.  My son loves it, although I think he may not get all the subtle messages. No doubt he gets most and likely the important one. The illustrations are, well, art. Riotous layers of leaves and green on some pages and subdued grays browns of proper society (Edwardian perhaps?) on others.  And always, always, the magical pop of orange - the tiger! This is also one of my favorite books of the year. Another one not to miss.

Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner
This book was a complete surprise - David Wiesner always surprises me, but still I wasn't expecting what was waiting when I opened this book for a first read.  It is nearly wordless - I won't say any more - you need to see for yourself.  Hilarious? Yes! Laugh-out-loud! Good story - yes! Too sophisticated for many young readers - I think so. I have trouble imagining my first grade library class getting a lot of what happens in this book. But that is OK. Close study and some prompting from teachers, librarians and/or parents will fill in what is missing. I didn't vote for it, but I love it.

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales
Another laugh-out-loud book that shouldn't be missed. I had a little bit more warning for this book having researched it a bit more before reading it. Still, I wasn't prepard for just how delightful this book is.  Nino - the little child defeats his mythical opponents in wrestling manoevers that boggle the mind and tickle the brain. I just grinned from beginning to end. There is lots of helpful information about these various mythical opponents to help those of us who don't know them understand the brilliance of the story and illustration. Again, I didn't vote for it but I LOVE it. Don't miss the chance to read this, or better, own it.

On a Beam of Light by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
I got bogged down with this book by all the details from Einstein's life that weren't included. I enjoyed the illustrations. They were interesting and left the impression of lots of characters floating around on creamy beige textured paper. This sounds dumb - sorry - but that is what stands out in my memory.  I liked it, and am always looking for books about scientists for my children so will likely read it to my son soon. It has very enthusiastic fans who were heartbroken it didn't do better in our mock vote.

Parrots over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, illustrated by Susan L. Roth
Gosh - what a book. I just started gushing over it from the moment I first saw illustrations on an illustration blog (Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast) not long ago. I finally made it to my favorite children's book store recently to get my hands on a copy. It is more beautiful in person.  As much a history of Puerto Rico as of the parrots, it is still a pleasing read for young readers.  The color, the detail, very wonderful. As I was checking out at the bookstore, one of the employees - very knowledgable about everything - told me that birds are one of her passions and that Roth got the parrots toes wrong. Screech - my enthusiasm came to a stand still. I rushed home and researched, and as far as I can tell, it is true, the parrots are always shown with 3 toes in the images. In reality, they are zygodactyl meaning that they have 4 toes on each leg. Still, I voted through each phase of the mock vote for this book. It is worth close study and enjoyment.

Next up - the results from the real Caldecott awards, and others, which are announced in a few hours in Philadelphia.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Caldecott (and Coretta Scott King and Newbury and...) Awards Approach

New Year - so let's start with some children's book awards.

From early fall until February, I follow the Calling Caldecott Blog on the Horn Book Magazine website.  The link is here.

I thought I'd post earlier to encourage readers to follow this blog and see some of the loveliest books, and most entertaining books, of the year so far (at least from major publishers) in the US.  Well, life happens. And here we are with the first vote on the blog's mock Caldecott vote announced today.  You can view that here.

I'll be offering thoughts today and tomorrow in the next few postings on the books that made it through the first round of voting - 12 books (down from 24).

Best of all, you can vote in the next round of the mock Caldecott on Wednesday from 9am (EST). Polls close Thursday at 9am (EST).

The real Caldecott awards will be announced along with the Coretta Scott King, Newbury and more at the ALA Mid Winter Conference at 8am EST on Monday, January 27th.

Here are the twelve titles that made it through round one. My reviews start tomorrow. See you then.

Building Our House by Jonathan Bean

The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle

Have You Seen My New Blue Socks? by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier

Journey by Aaron Becker

Locomotive by Brian Floca

The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

Mr. Wuffles! by David Wiesner

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

On a Beam of Light by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky

Parrots over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sun Bread

As I mentioned in my post on Tuesday night, it is Elisa Kleven week on my blog because I love her books, and because she will be reading and signing books at Children's Book World in Los Angeles this Saturday.  Event details. 

We have had a crazy weather week - high 80s and 90s and then a big drop today down to the mid 60s with cloudy skies and even a few sprinkles. This amounts to fall weather here in Los Angeles. Perhaps we are inching towards winter at last. Which brings me to one of my favorite winter books Sun Bread by Elisa Kleven.

The book begins during a miserable winter scene where we peek into homes of animals shivering, short tempered. Even the newspaper has gone from Sun Times to Daily Sunless Times. The stalwart town baker takes matters into her own hands and bakes a magical sun bread so light, so bright, so warm, so fragrant that the towns-folk are drawn to the bakery.

Soon everyone is dancing up into the air and so joyful that the real sun breaks through the cold clouds and warms the earth and its inhabitants.  Spring comes at last. The newspaper returns to the Sun Times and celebrates along with the everyone else.

The art is beautiful - rich color even in the early pages in the winter scenes. The illustrations weave the humor that rides just below the surface.  And when the sun joins in, unable to resist the joy of the of the families, the glorious warmth and golden yellow shines on every page.  

There are so many details in the art, tiny and delicate in some places, bigger action in other places, but always, always a visual feast.

The recipe for the sun bread is at the back and is delicious.   

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Lion and the Little Red Bird

As I mentioned in my post on Tuesday night, it is Elisa Kleven week on my blog because I love her books, and because she will be appearing at Children's Book World in Los Angeles this Saturday.  Event details. 

The Lion and the Little Red Bird was a life-changing book for me.  I remember the first moment I read it after it was handed to me by my favorite clerk at Children's Book World here in Los Angeles. I was on my annual hunt for books to use in a picture book workshop I give every summer. I stammered my way through my vision of that year's workshop on how an interaction with art was a pivotal moment in a character's life.  The clerk calmly walked off and returned a moment later with The Lion and the Little Red Bird.  As I read I felt my brain swirling, my jaw dropping and my heart racing. I've never been the same. 

I know this sounds overly dramatic, but I swear this is what happened.  I bought copies for most people I know and gave the book as a gift to most of my son's friends for their birthday that year.  Several friends still tear up recounting the response their child had to first reading this book.  One friend's daughter slept with the book under her pillow for weeks.

The Lion and the Little Red Bird is at its essence a celebration of art and beauty and how both can reach across any barrier to communication, bringing joy and friendship.

This book is a visual feast - beautiful color and I think layered collage (remember I said yesterday I really don't know much about how art is done for picture books?), lots going on in the foreground and way far away in the background.  My son and I used to pore over the book, studying all the tiny action scenes in the distance behind the lion and the little red bird.  

The story follows a little red bird on her journey to solve a mystery - why does a lion she happens upon one day have a tail that changes color?  She asks the lion, but he doesn't understand her. So she follows him each day until she discovers the wonderful answer after the lion rescues the bird in a thunderstorm.  

The ending is so lovely and such a surprise that I won't share it here just in case you haven't read this book yet. If you haven't read rush to your nearest bookstore and get a copy, or order it post haste from Amazon.

In truth, it has taken me months to get up the nerve to write this blog posting because I love this book so much and am frustrated by my lack of narrative strength to do this beloved book justice.  Just get it, read it and be transformed.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Elisa Kleven - author and illustrator

Back from another short break, I'm pleased to announce it is Elisa Kleven week on my blog as Ms. Kleven is coming to Children's Book World this Saturday, November 16th at 10:30am. Take note Los Angelinos!  Information on the event is here.

Elisa Kleven has published many books all of which are worth reading and studying, and, most importantly sharing with children, for their beautiful art and fine story telling. Her illustrations are sometimes delicate, sometimes textural and layered, sometimes brightly colored and busy (but in a good way).  The fact is that I don't know much about art or how artists make picture book illustrations, but I love her art.  I learned a great deal about her life's journey as an artist and how that shaped her illustrations on her website: 

Her stories are, well - charming, gentle, sensitive, insightful, and written for children. Books written for children is an important criteria for me.  Few things in my children's picture book life are more annoying than books for children that are actually written for adults.  

I've had the happy opportunity to correspond with Elisa Kleven over the past 6 or so months and found her to be, of course, a kind, encouraging, generous person.  I want to thank her here  - it mean so much to me and my family.

For the next few days I'm going to focus on three of Ms Kleven's books in more detail. But there are three others I feel compelled to mention as they are long time favorites.

I remember the first Elisa Kleven book I read sitting on a library floor many years ago. The Paper Princess, it was called, and its lovely illustrations caught my attention as much as the endearing story.  (Read more about it here.)

After that I found several other titles including The Apple Doll which became a favorite and was often included in book gift lists when friends asked for book recommendations.

My son read  Hooray, a Pinata! nearly every day for months. When I wore out my welcome with the LA city library system checking out the book for so long, we switched to the County library system for a while, and then back to the city library again - just to give you an idea how many months it was.

Apologies for all the "Look Inside" graphics on the book covers.  I have borrowed these images from

See you tomorrow for The Lion and the Little Red Bird.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

GreenBeard the Pirate Pig

So I bet you didn't know that September 19th is Talk Like a Pirate Day.  I didn't either until my friend Andrea Balsara sent me postcard last week announcing as much along with a promotion for her hilarious and adorable book GreenBeard the Pirate Pig which was released last fall (2012)

I have owed her a review (just because I promised I would) since November of last year.  She sent me the book and this adorable stuffed toy:

GreenBeard is very cute and very kind. He is also a guinea pig. His beard is green because he loves lettuce and eats so much of it.  He is a farmer in the hills near the sea. The smell of the salt air lures him down to the coast and the next thing he knows, he has caught the adventure bug, bought a pirate ship, found a first mate, and is off to sail the seas.  He sings a delightful song of joy  - "Yo,Ho, Yo,Ho, A pirate pig I be! Yo, Ho! Yo, Ho! I sail the seven seas! With wind in my whiskers and salt on my paws...". Sheet music and lyrics are included which good because it is a fun song and kids love to sing it.  

The illustrations, which are lovely, look to be a combination of water color (or something like that), and sketches that look like pencil. Sometimes there are full spreads of illustration, others there are small drawings to go with even just one line of the story.  Some are pretty, some are funny.  This certainly keeps the book interesting for young readers. Really though, I shouldn't try to explain the details of the art because I don't really know what I'm talking about.  I like the illustrations for the most part.  Sometimes the layout  makes the pages really busy.

The text, mostly spot on, does have a few awkward moments. But more importantly, there are funny lines like this one where GreenBeard is trying to convince Snug Rumpkin the Pirate Rat to be his first mate: ' " Let us not be unpleasant, Mr. Rumkin," he said as he rummaged through his bad to find another carrot.  "I have need of a crew and I believe you will make an excellent first mate." '

Happily, we are promised another adventure at the end of the book. For our family, the next book can't come out fast enough.

My then 6 year old son was besotted with GreenBeard and we launched into full pirate mode for several months.  
 Here they are, along with a pirate treasure chest.

 Contents of said treasure chest.

Here is a link to a YouTube promo, which is very sweet and will probably get you to buy the book (available on but not - more fools them!) if these adorable photos don't.

Tomorrow on Talk Like A Pirate Day, I will be reading the book in my son's first grade class, thanks to the generosity of his teacher. 

I closing, I'd like to share the best pirate joke I heard today from my friend Katie:

What is pirates' favorite food?
Chips ahoy! (to be said with a sideways grin and a slight accent of some sort!)